As we soak in the healing waters of the present moment, the chasms between sacred and mundane, bearable and unbearable, dissolve.
We live in uncertain times. Putin’s recent cold threat of a nuclear strike against Ukraine, and the real possibility of our mutual assured destruction, escalates our unease. How do we live with such insecurity?
This is really the same question we looked at in a post two weeks ago. In light of the radical teachings of impermanence, do we just continue making coffee, going to work and streaming our favorite shows when we get home?
living in the light of death
I still have that conversation with my old friend running through my mind, telling me about her stage four breast cancer. How do you live with this? Woody Allen once remarked about his own mortality:
I don’t want to live on in the hearts of others, I want to live on in my apartment.
We know we are going to die, it’s only a question of when. Yet we console ourselves we have lots of time, much of which is spent planning on some better version of now.
Ulla-Carin Lindquist, at the height of a successful career as a newscaster in Sweden, was diagnosed with ALS. She kept of journal of her few years, published as Rowing Without Oars, in which she wrote:
There is no bright future for me, but there is a bright present.
Maybe she spent some of her last years reading Goethe and found his famous line:
The present alone is our happiness.
life’s little secret
I suspect life itself let her in on a little secret– that her mortality is not a problem to be solved, but rather a “brightness” disclosing itself right here, right now, in the present moment.
At times it may feel like the present moment is a bit overrated. A blur or a poof or a blip and it’s gone, followed by a procession of more present moments similarly vanishing.
At times I’d rather occupy my internal bandwidth relishing a juicy fantasy or rewriting an awkward episode of my personal history. I used to think like this forty years ago.
then I got into meditation
It took me a few years to realize I was living in a virtual reality populated by self-constructed avatars of my past and future selves.
Meditation reveals the present moment as rich and meaningful rather than a blur or a blip. Consider being on a train moving quickly through a large city. Looking out the window, all you can make out are swirls of graffiti or the blur of buildings.
Meditation slows the train, revealing the details of a vibrant city. When we apply the brakes to our mind, there’s a richness there poets know so intimately:
There is nothing more profound, more mysterious, more pregnant . . . more dazzling than a window lighted by a single candle.Charles Baudelaire
planning for happiness?
On one of my first 10 day silent retreats back in the early 1980s I spent hours in meditation planning how I could do another retreat later in the year. The irony of planning for something while it was already happening was sobering.
What’s more, the enormity of the time I was spending in the future floored me. I was constantly busy planning, missing out on so much of my life, as John Lennon suggests:
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
Not only was I frequently absent from my own life, lost in the past or the future, what little semblance of the present moment I had left was consumed with obsessive thinking, rumination and worry.
missing the moment
It’s easy to overlook the present moment for two reasons. First, it’s obscured by clouds of thought. It may look like a blurry Polaroid with no discernible image. Or a station a speeding train zips by.
Secondly, if we happen to catch a glimpse while watching a sunset or being present at a birth, or a death, when our mind suddenly stops spinning, it seems like a meaningless pause in the movie in our head.
Meditation counteracts these impediments. First, by selecting an anchor, such as the breath, and patiently returning to it when our mind wanders, the cloud-bank of obsessive thought thins out. We can now intentionally glimpse the present moment.
It’s no longer a stranger that comes to visit while watching a sunset or being present at a birth, or a death.
meditation as cultivation
Secondly, by repetitive training, meditation introduces the potential of the present moment. Rather than a meaningless break in the mental action, we learn to cultivate healing herbs in the garden of the present moment for the benefit of others.
this last point is often lost on beginners
Discovering the present moment is not the end of the spiritual path. It’s only the beginning. There isn’t a term for meditation in Early Buddhism. The work we do on the spiritual path is called bhavana, which translates as the cultivation of what the Buddha called wholesome states of mind, e.g., compassion, loving-kindness, tranquility and feeling joy in the good fortune of others.
calming the mind is just the first step
When we talk about meditation in the West, we often are talking about ways to calm our anxious minds. But in the East, calming the mind is just step one of a lifelong path of cultivating care and compassion for all beings.
As we soak in the healing waters of the present moment, the chasm between sacred and mundane dissolves, as in Baudelaire’s rapture at seeing that single candle.
We also train in being with the difficult parts of our life without being overwhelmed, allowing us to be more available to others. The chasm between the bearable and the unbearable similarly dissolves.
The joys and horrors of this crazy world are both meaningful and workable. We can grieve whole-heartedly with the father seeing his wife and two children lying lifeless after a Russian mortar attack on a street in Kiev.
As our weary minds regain their vitality, our hearts are at peace. Our life is no longer a problem to be solved, but an inexhaustible treasure for the benefit of all.
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